One day in the early 1970s someone told me about a man in Ottawa who spent his evenings watching TV, listening to radio, reading newspapers, and occasionally talking on the phone, all at the same time. It sounded like the recipe for a nervous breakdown, but the fellow describing it was enthusiastic. "That guy never stops absorbing information," he said. "He's 21st-century Man."
It didn't occur to me that I was listening to an accurate prophecy. But multi-tasking, while not entirely new, has become this young century's characteristic habit, hobby, addiction and working style. That Ottawa man was ahead of his time, just like Lyndon Johnson; LBJ made phone calls during meetings, watched three major network newscasts at once, and sometimes gave interviews from the bathroom while defecating.
Today there are people who think nothing of reading e-mail while chatting on the phone and watching news bulletins crawl across the TV screen. Others glance through text messages during meetings. A Toronto radio host has become famous for watching TV during interviews; the people he interviews wonder why he's always looking over their shoulders.
The word "multi-tasking" appeared in 1966 to describe a computer performing more than one job simultaneously. In the early 1990s it drifted into general English to describe a practice that was beginning to grow popular. Now we've reached the point where many among us feel vaguely guilty when doing only one thing, no matter how important.
You can find several impulses lurking behind this fixation. Those who intensely fear boredom (and the depressing feelings it admits) may believe that two or three activities avoid boredom better than one. That urge gets support from a nervous feeling, apparently shared by nearly everyone, that we are not keeping up. As the body of available information grows, it creates layers of guilt that silt up like dust on a bookshelf. Everyone believes knowledge is power, but doesn't that also mean ignorance is impotence? And who among us does not, sometimes, feel ignorant, therefore powerless?
A third impulse is the familiar urge for methodical self-improvement that regularly uplifts and afflicts our society. In this light, multi-tasking looks like one more desperate attempt to make us more effective people. Early in the 20th century, a French psychologist, Emile Coue, became king of the self-help industry by writing best-sellers such as How to Practice Suggestion and Autosuggestion. His devotees, aspiring to self mastery, began every morning with a mantra, "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better."
Millions claimed that Coue-ism changed their lives. After a while they stopped saying that, and soon it was hard to find anyone who believed it. More recent self-help schemes, launched with magnificent promises, have also slipped into obscurity. Did anybody ever learn French from tapes while sleeping? I never met anyone who was made wise by transcendental meditation, or a graduate of a speed-reading course who seemed notably well-read.
Similar yearnings make us stuff our minds with several kinds of information at once, but that may only heighten anxiety. Multi-tasking's enemies include Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil, California psychologists who have spent 15 years working on books such as TechnoStress. They believe multi-tasking magnifies stress, decreases the ability to concentrate for extended periods, and may cause stomach aches, headaches and insomnia. Perhaps because it introduces so many subjects superficially, it also makes people think their memories are weakening.
As for effectiveness, multi-tasking so far appears to be a snare and a delusion. Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University, using brain-imaging equipment, found that two different parts of the brain, dealing with different tasks, produce a net loss in mental efficiency. Doing two things at once, we do each of them less well than if we had done them one at a time. David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychologist, set out to measure in tenths of a second the time a multi-tasker spends switching from one task to another, "the hidden costs of multi-tasking." His bad news: While multi-tasking seems efficient, it takes more time in the end to absorb data.
Recently The New York Times discussed this theme under the heading "The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?" The writer mentioned people who can't stop communicating, or receiving communications, and suggested a name for this condition, on-line compulsive disorder (OCD). He mentioned that obsessively wired people report sitting in a meeting and using "a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously -- with someone in the same meeting."
I scoffed at the part about addiction, till the image of a close friend swam into my consciousness. Sane in most ways, he was heard to remark two years ago that he had never come across anything so silly and useless as a cellphone. Then his corporation asked him to carry one, in case of emergencies, and he reluctantly agreed.
The effect was tragic. It was like giving a 13-year-old his first hit of crack cocaine. Overnight, my friend became addicted. The other day, during lunch in a restaurant, he handled three personal calls. Poor devil, he seemed to consider this quite normal.